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Chemicals And Cancer

When the American Cancer Society and the American Chemistry Council both take issue with a report by the President’s Cancer Panel, agreeing that the panel’s report overstates the role of environmental factors in causing cancer, you know there’s a disconnect.

Boy, is there ever. The 2008–09 annual report of the panel, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” is, in a word, a mess. The report collects seemingly every cancer-scare hypothesis that’s been floated over the past 30 to 40 years and suggests that we really ought to be concerned about them. It urges an extreme application of the precautionary principle to any agent suspected of being a carcinogen, especially chemicals. Most of the assertions in the report aren’t backed up by convincing scientific research.

Reading the report is painful. Some samples of its inane point of view: “Limited research to date on unintended health effects of nanomaterials, for example, suggests that unanticipated environmental hazards may emerge from the push for progress.” Really?

“Pesticides … contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic.” Who knew?

“Sharp controversy exists in the scientific community as to possible adverse health effects from exposure to low frequency electromagnetic radiation.”

“Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier; to a disturbing extent, babies are born 
‘pre-polluted.’ ”

The report lists 454 references, and I’m sure many of them are authoritative and legitimate. But some of them? Not so much. For example, in reference to green chemistry, the report states, “However, many chemists lack training in understanding environmental hazards and how to develop safe alternatives; they also face industry barriers to change.” The reference for this claim? A 2008 article in the LA Times.

The American Cancer Society put out a press release on the report that quoted Michael J. Thun, vice president emeritus of the society’s Epidemiology & Surveillance Research unit. Thun said the report makes some valid points about environmental exposure to chemicals, but added, “Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as ‘focused narrowly.’ ”

ACC’s statement reads, in part: “We share the concerns of the American Cancer Society regarding the lack of balance in the report. It is regrettable and somewhat startling that the President’s Cancer Panel report does not provide an objective, accurate, or comprehensive overview of the current state of the science and regulation.” The statement also notes that, “whether by accident or design, the report omits significant, highly relevant information. The panel’s review is not thorough and seems to intentionally exclude many scientists specializing in these issues in industry, government, academia, and independent research institutions.”

The obvious flaws in the report have not prevented it from gaining traction in the public eye. “New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer” was the head on Nicholas D. Kristof’s column in the New York Times (although the Times also ran a story the following day headed “U.S. Panel Criticized as Overstating Cancer Risks”). In the Washington Post, it was “U.S. Facing ‘Grievous Harm’ from Chemicals in Air, Food, Water, Panel Says.”

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) put out a press release titled “President’s Cancer Panel Findings Affirm Lautenberg’s Call for Chemical Safety Reform.” Hearings probably aren’t far behind. The blogosphere is lit up with commentary on the report, much of it bemoaning the public’s exposure to chemicals.

Look, cancer is serious, and environmental factors, including chemicals, play a role in causing some cancers. Serious research is being done on this subject, and known carcinogens are regulated accordingly. The alarmist report from the President’s Cancer Panel does a disservice to this serious work.

Thanks for reading.

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